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Simón BolívarTravels and Transformations of a Cultural Icon$

Maureen G. Shanahan and Ana María Reyes

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813062624

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813062624.001.0001

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Dancing with the Enemy

Dancing with the Enemy

Diplomacy in the Revolutionary Era

(p.48) 2 Dancing with the Enemy
Simón Bolívar

Juan Francisco Sans

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Simón Bolívar’s love of dance has been used by his critics as evidence of vanagloria. Far from being a frivolous and banal activity, Sanse demonstrates that dance was used during the independence wars as a powerful political weapon. To prove this assertion, this paper discusses the use of dance (e.g., the waltz, fandango, contradance, Santanderana), especially at grand balls, in the period from the beginning of the independence process in New Granada and Venezuela in 1810 to the end of the Colombian project with the death of Simón Bolívar in 1830. In order to do that, Sans refers to the theories of political economy of music by Jacques Attali and Véronique Hébrard’s concept of “imposed musical events.”

Keywords:   Dance, Contradance, Waltz, Ball, Santanderana, Fandango, Véronique Hébrard, Jacques Attali

Simón Bolívar’s well-documented passion for dance has often been the object of misinterpretation and accusations of frivolity. His reputation as a gifted dancer has even been used to demystify the hero and to put his integrity into question. But Bolívar was undoubtedly a man of his time. As in the case of most contemporary heroes like Bonaparte or the duke of Wellington, dance was an essential and performative part of public life. Such political and military figures used dance not only as a leisure activity but also strategically—to assess a situation, subdue the enemy, foster camaraderie within their troops, calm a terrorized population, and consolidate power relations. Historical testimonies reveal that dance was a political tool during Bolívar’s times, the Independence War (1810–21), and the República de Colombia (1821–30). In the contested contexts of independence and the early republic, Bolívar and some of his contemporaries used dance strategically and to great effect.

The Dance of the Patria Boba and the República Aérea

Balls and soirées have historically been excellent occasions for political display. Despite this, there are few studies about the close relationship between dance and power, and none that show how seduction, persuasion, or coercion in dance played crucial roles in the fate of the people. Yet there is evidence that the culture of dance and its diverse functions was carried over from the viceregal era and was refashioned for the new republics during the (p.49) early nineteenth century political periods known as the Patria Boba (Foolish Fatherland, in Colombia) and República Aérea (Flighty Republic, in Venezuela). Henri LaFayette Ducoudray-Holstein, a Napoleonic soldier who joined Bolívar’s campaign, describes the culture of dance in Caracas and Bogotá in the final years of the Spanish rule: “Before the revolution, it was not unusual to see ladies at a ball or other festivals wearing more than 200,000 [U.S.] dollars [an estimated $4.7 million today] in watches, diamonds, pearls, etc., in their dresses, without appearing to be overloaded” (1829, 45). Dance became then an indisputably political practice within which the ostentatious display of power and wealth constituted an essential element. These spectacles of wealth and status continued well into independence. On May 11, 1859, Nicomedes Pastor Díaz, a member of the Senate of Spain, vehemently denounced the political machinations circulating around the ballroom: “It is necessary that we protest day after day against this sort of diplomatic orgy, in which the borders of a nation are determined in between quadrilles, in which a toast decides the fate of a city, and in which entire provinces become payment or treatment when courting” (Pastor Díaz 1996, 336).

Before the independence wars, the American colonies had the custom of organizing balls, dances, and soirées in the main cities of the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada and the Capitanía General de Venezuela. These events were attended by la crème de la crème of the political class, the future founding fathers of independence. No sooner had independence been declared than many of these events continued just as before. In his Recuerdos sobre la Rebelión de Caracas (1829), José Domingo Díaz criticizes his peers from the Caracas city hall for their celebrations after Venezuela declared its independence on April 19, 1810. Díaz accuses them of being spendthrifts, gamblers, and licentious, ostentatious good-for-nothings who spent about three million pesos of Her Majesty’s funds on feasts, balls, and public festivals (26). Similarly, in Colombia, when the Junta Suprema de Santa Fe de Bogotá was installed on December 22, 1810, Camilo Torres Tenorio, one of the independence heroes, hosted a splendid dress ball after the popular feasts (Henao and Arrubla 1920, 278). These examples show that during the early years of the war, life continued more or less as usual in the areas far from the front despite some inconveniences and shortages caused by the conflict. However, when the war got worse, what came was the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

(p.50) In times of war, citizens as social actors are forced to pay tribute to whichever side holds political power at a given moment, and during the Bolivarian wars, terrain shifted rapidly from the royalists to the patriots. A ball constituted, therefore, an excellent occasion to commit the population, especially the most influential and wealthy people, to the new regime. The event became the perfect context for both releasing the heightened emotions generated by the war and establishing new power relations. When one of the factions in power planned a ball, whoever decided not to attend it would be considered an enemy, and that would bring consequences. In her 2001 study of music during the independence war in Venezuela, Véronique Hébrard explores precisely the kind of society established during conflicts (37). The fact that people attended these celebrations did not necessarily mean that they changed their loyalties; instead, they were motivated by fear of retaliation to make at least a temporary show of deference. Hébrard characterizes these events as “imposed musical manifestations,” that is to say, “officially supported practices through which the authorities at a given time decide to mark out a political project and context at a sound level” (30). The civilian population had to choose between the warring sides, risking the burden of otherness imposed by the enemy. The inevitable social repositionings that occur at the end of hostilities—amnesty, revenge, migration, and exclusion—are processes that are crucial to analyze in order to understand how human beings behave under crisis conditions. In such a volatile context, elites and others used the ball as a site of negotiating social position and reestablishing a certain degree of balance and order within chaos.

Perhaps the most infamous “imposed musical manifestations” were the balls organized by royalist general José Tomás Boves during the time of the War to the Death decreed by Simón Bolívar in 1813. Historical novels in Venezuela have since made Boves’s balls famous—for their cruelty. A century later Darius Milhaud’s Bolívar opera (1943), which Maureen Shanahan discusses in this volume, dramatized one of Boves’s balls. Boves infamously compelled entire populations to participate in these events and then executed his enemies halfway through the balls as a warning. This would immediately drive people into terror and submission. Similar practices by other royalist generals have been documented by historians William Duane (1968), Felipe Larrazábal (1865, 319), and José Manuel Restrepo (1858, 238). However, it would be naïve to think that the patriots did not use similar methods when it came to teaching a lesson to the common people in order (p.51) to win them over to the patriot cause. Díaz, for example, writes about a ball given by patriot general Juan Bautista Arismendi in the ominous days of 1814 to celebrate a massacre of royalists (1829, 391).

These events were meant to break the will of the defeated, who could hardly be expected to change their minds after all the atrocities they had gone through. But they were also intended to intimidate or persuade the majority of the population to follow a coerced elite. The host of a ball demanded the participation of the most influential people in town—landlords, merchants, liberal professionals, craftsmen, and so forth—to convince the rest of the population that the elite supported the new status quo. Wars are largely won by swaying public opinion, and an event of this nature provided the most convincing proof during that era that things had gone back to normal. After all, who hosts a ball in the middle of a public disturbance? Apparently, the sine qua non condition of dance is social peace, and that is precisely the symbolic strength of hosting a dance in the middle of a warring conflict: to make people believe that everything is fine, even when it is not. Misinformation is vital to win the support of the civilian population, which desperately clamors for a return to peace, civic calm, and stability, no matter the price. The political function of the ball can only be explained if we also understand that they served as intelligence and counterintelligence operations vital to keeping information under control as well as vehicles for demoralizing the enemy and bending the will of the population into submission. These kinds of social events thus became symbolic battlefields.

At this point, it is worth remembering the exceptional story told by Ducoudray-Holstein about the anything-but-glamorous arrival of the patriot general José Francisco Bermúdez in Caracas on May 19, 1821: “[It] resembled a funeral. In the streets were a mass of miserable wretches, some begging for a cent for charity. Prostitutes mingled among the ranks of the soldiers, [and] amidst the ringing of bells, [there was] the sound of cannons” (1829, 280). In such a forsaken, devastated city, common sense would suggest that Bermúdez should have taken care of the urgent medical, housing, and sanitation needs of the people, and that he should have consolidated a government as best he could. However, the first thing Bermúdez did was to give a ball that Ducoudray-Holstein characterized as a reversal of class and racial hierarchies: “one could not find even four ladies of distinction, all were people of color or blacks”(280). The festivities continued for the next three days “at the expense of the ruined inhabitants” (280), meaning (p.52) the elites and creoles. Balls thus functioned as propaganda for a new social hierarchy, as means of property appropriation, and as a measure of political loyalty. Finally, when Bolívar signed the War Regularization treaty with Spain, the ball acquired yet another connotation: as a diplomatic vehicle.

War Is Like Fandango

A nineteenth-century Spanish proverb says, “Life is like fandango, and he who does not dance it is a fool.” The fandango, a popular eighteenth-century Spanish dance, became synonymous with making a fuss or display either positively, as in celebrating a triumph, or negatively, as in a heated debate. War, like the fandango, required everyone to declare a position. For the armies that fought the War of Independence, officers and troops alike, dance played a very important role as a favorite source of distraction and relaxation in the middle of the horrors of conflict. This kind of leisure was common even during the bloodiest years of the war. Among the most famous soirées were those organized by patriot general José Antonio Páez, who at every opportunity offered dance as solace to civilians and his troops and along the way had a great time himself. However, it was Simón Bolívar in the flesh who most excelled in his fondness for balls, many of which he held during the course of his military campaign, as described by Ducoudray-Holstein: “Whenever he stays two or three days in a place, he gives a ball or two, at which he dances in his boots and spurs, and makes love to those who happen to please him for the moment” (1829, 325).

Dance was also used in this period to assert the victor’s symbolic power. An anonymous aide-de-camp of San Martin published a text in the Revista de Buenos Aires as “Entrevista en Guayaquil (1822)” describing the circumstances of a ball that took place during the famous meeting that year between Generals José de San Martín (hero of the Argentine and Chilean independence) and Simón Bolívar to decide who would lead the independence of Peru. The most illustrious people of the city attended. The text evidences the high tensions and power displays that took place during the event. However, we would like to focus our attention on how dance was used as an exceptional stage on which the future of the growing South American republics was decided. The account describes the Guayaquil ball both as a real display of elegance, seduction and politics and as an overturning of (p.53) racial and class orders, a tour de force functioning as a competition over who could win more points in the approval of the Ecuadorian people:

At nine p.m. that same night we went to the ball we had been invited to. The gathering was brilliant in the number, beauty, and elegance of the ladies and the sumptuous salon was perfectly adorned and illuminated; as for the men, most of them were commanders and officers from the Colombian army and the General Staff of the Liberator [Simón Bolívar]; a good number of them were mulattoes and knew nothing of the refined manners of a distinguished society. We were shocked by the way they treated the ladies, their lack of courtesy and composure, not quite understanding why the presence of the Liberator, who treated them as servants, would not impose respect from them, until we noticed with surprise that when he too went dancing, he did exactly the same as his subordinates. (66)

As in Bermúdez’s narrative, the derogatory reference to blacks and mulattoes expresses an anxiety about the revolution’s perceived reversal of social hierarchies while revealing the writer’s attitudes. The text’s injurious expressions about Simón Bolívar and his people, especially mulattoes, evidence a common prejudice of the elite of the period who attributed non-elites with poor behavior as being rowdy, uncivilized men with no morals. These expressions do not match the historical truth and can only be considered as part of the political propaganda.

As the victory of the patriotic cause seemed imminent, dances became even more extravagant, making people forget for a moment that they were still in the middle of a conflagration. War is no impediment for vanity, and hence these balls often differed little from those of the viceregal era described by Ducoudray-Holstein. Richard Bache, an exceptional witness of the time, puts it this way: “Official soirées are quite splendid, and for them ladies wear elegant and expensive dresses adorned with opulent laces, gold or silver embroidery, artificial flowers, and lavish jewelry” (in Benedittis 2002, 173). As might be expected, many people disapproved of such profligate spending since it exacerbated the dramatic contrast between the lives of officers and the lives of the troops and common people. The sumptuousness in the midst of the widespread scarcity and privation provoked severe criticism. One unidentified disgruntled contemporary complained, “It was (p.54) said that with the money spent on social gatherings they could have paid our salaries” (in Benedittis 2002, 328).

The flamboyant victory celebrations at the elite and popular levels functioned as displays of public support as well as vehicles for distracting a warweary populace. According to the Act of the Junta Assembled in La Guaira on May 28, 1820, for the Publication and Celebration of the 1812 Constitution (in Hébrard 2001, 32), the royalist authorities of the Venezuelan port city of La Guaira decreed eight consecutive days of dances and comedy as well as a general illumination of the city, all aimed to show the strength of the royal authority. Bearing in mind the old Roman practice of panem et circensis, the followers of both causes did their best to distract the masses. As usual, many of these city festivals, like the elite balls, took place at public expense, causing people to feel coerced to give their best efforts to fulfill the government’s decrees.

Dances worked not just as a way to ease frayed nerves in a violent environment. They also served as a means to carry out revenge, intimidate others, pinpoint enemies, coerce people into loyalty or submission, negotiate alliances, or generate public support through distracting spectacles. They were part of a political, ideological, and intelligence strategy used to strengthen the position of one of the warring factions and to persuade the population. Although historians have systematically ignored such events, casting balls as mere protocol of no real importance, the historical record reveals that they played an important role in negotiating power relations within the inherent instability of war.

La République S’Amuse

Deep-seated problems confronted the government of the new republics when the war was over and independence was secured: organizing the state; guaranteeing social stability, governability, and public security; developing the economy, commerce, and industry; taking care of the urgent needs of the people, which were many after the war; rebuilding cities and institutions; and finally, designing a physical and moral restorative plan. It was as titanic an enterprise as the war itself. Dances were still common during this period of relative peace. They were used as political and diplomatic instruments but with a subtler and more suggestive character, full of nuances that were hard to grasp sometimes but still politically imperative.

(p.55) By 1822, some dramatic changes had already taken place compared to the kinds of dances that were popular before the revolution (Duane 1968, 102). Old Spanish colonial dances like the fandango, bolero, ondú, and zorongo were displaced by two new genres: the waltz and the contra dance. These two dances established a choreographic landscape in which the vices of old viceregal politics finally gave way to a new elite. When and how Bolívar managed to learn the steps of these new dances remains a real mystery, busy as he was with the liberation of Colombia. But if we are to believe his good reputation as a dancer, we must infer that somehow he found the time to do so. All of Bolívar’s contemporaries agree, without exception, that he was an extraordinary dancer. One said, “He comported himself as a perfect gentleman in everything he did. He danced the waltz marvelously. He was moderate and self-restrained, and he spoke with grace and precision” (in Benedittis 2002, 327). One of the Liberator’s frequent dancing partners, Jeanette Hart from the United States, describes more than eloquently how skillful he was: “The last piece that the band played and we danced together was a waltz; everybody stopped dancing, left the center of the salon for us alone and stood around, just watching us…. The General moved as if the chords of that waltz were coming out of his own body, it was something like an inborn talent” (in González Henríquez 1989). This description contrasts radically with the unflattering impressions regarding Bolívar and his people in “Entrevista en Guayaquil (1822)” published in the Revista de Buenos Aires; it also shows why Bolívar’s specialty, the waltz, became the most popular genre in South American salons for the rest of the nineteenth century.

In a very famous passage of his memoir, patriot general Daniel Florencio O’Leary states that Bolívar “did a lot of exercises; after a very busy day that would have been more than enough to exhaust even the strongest of men, I have seen him … work for five or six hours, or dance just as long, with all the passion that he felt for dancing” (in Henao and Arrubla 1920, 298). Some of Bolívar’s generals were also famous for the same reason. General Francisco de Paula Santander, vice president of the República de Colombia, took pride in his dance skills, so much so that his name was associated with some complex forms of the quadrille reportedly of his own creation: “The arrangement and execution of a quadrille required the highest level of strategic expertise; General Santander was really good at it, which was probably why the required quadrilles, those with complicated moves, were known as santandereanas” (Cordovez Moure 1893/2006, 25–26).

(p.56) During the most glorious years of the República de Colombia (1822–28), the country celebrated October 28, Saint Simon’s Day and the saint’s day of the president Liberator, with great splendor. This day became the best time for people to show their loyalty to the head of state, although other saints’ days could also be cause for celebration. In any event, to display loyalty, nothing could be better than a ball. All around Colombia people celebrated the day in the most ostentatious ways, eager to please their ruler as evident in contemporary accounts. The Suplemento de la Gaceta de Colombia published on December 17, 1826, reports on a lavish saint’s day celebration in Trujillo: “The event finished at night with a splendid ball and refreshments which said Colonel Blanco hosted in his residence.” The Gaceta de Colombia from October 31, 1829, also mentions a sumptuous dance hosted in Bolívar’s honor: “Such a memorable day ended with a magnificent soirée attended by the most select residents of the capital. More brilliant than the rich and elegant dresses were the gentility and joy of the ladies, who embellished it with grace and charm.” Of course, many of these honorific banquets carried the scent of serfdom and servility as many sought to curry favor with the new leadership.

Almost any event was an opportunity to render homage to Bolívar. In Bogotá there were all kinds of receptions to celebrate his return to the capital in 1826. A honeyed note entitled “Gifts to the President Liberator in Bogotá,” published in the Gaceta de Colombia on November 26, 1826, describes an incredible number of feasts that took place one after the other. Bolívar danced through all of them:

Although no gift would be honorable enough for General Bolívar, we have the pleasure to make public the presents that this capital has extended to him with its finest wishes. The government gave him an extraordinary feast at the palace on November 14, when he arrived. The following day there was another one in His Excellency’s villa. On the evening of the 17th Mr. Antonio de Velasco, director of the military music band, gave him a prominent concert at the palace when they played the Tancredi opera, arranged by Velasco as an instrumental piece, for the first time. On the 21st it was Colonel Campbell, chargé d’affaires of S.M.B. [Bolívar], who gave him a magnificent feast. Then on the 22nd there was yet another magnificent feast hosted by Mr. Francisco Montoya. On the morning of the 23rd Mr. Segismundo (p.57) Leidersdorf gave him a splendid lunch, while in the evening S.M.B.’s chargé d’affaires hosted another ball. On the 24th Misters Juan Manuel and Manuel Antonio Arrublas gave him an elegant and splendid feast. Then yesterday, November 25th, the Liberator left this capital and will eat and sleep at the estate of His Excellency Mr. Vice President, where we know a grand reception has been planned. Today he will be received by Mr. Luis Montoya in his estate in Boita, where he will stay for the night.

The Gaceta de Colombia devoted a number of reviews to the many official or private balls that took place mostly in Bogotá. They were always attended by distinguished diplomats, officials from powerful countries, and entrepreneurs who had already arrived in the new republic in search of the substantial profits ensured by commercial contracts. Oddly enough, many of these reviews were identified with the title “unofficial dispatch” as if announcing a war update. On August 15, 1824, the anniversary of the Battle of Boyacá, the Gaceta de Colombia reported about “an elegant ball at the palace whose attendance was both great and magnificent.” On April 24, 1825, the same newspaper announced that “last week was very active, with feasts and balls held by the most illustrious society.” Again, on October 31, 1829, the Gaceta de Colombia described the arrival of José Larrea y Loredo, the plenipotentiary minister of Peru, who came to Santa Fe de Bogotá to negotiate peace between Peru and Colombia: “He was received on the 15th by the Liberator in his palace, where they ate together, and then at night there was a ball.” These events had become now the theater of operations where what were deployed were not belligerent forces but diplomatic skills.

Toward the end of the 1820s the political environment had become gloomy. Conspiracies were on the rise, which was one of the reasons Bolívar imposed a dictatorship. On September 25, 1828, there was an assassination attempt against him at the presidential palace in Bogotá. The note in the Gaceta de Colombia from October 5, 1828, offers details about the assassins’ preliminary plans, which reveal that they expected to carry out the assassination precisely during a ball:

The first intention of the traitors was to carry it out on the night of August 10, during the masquerade ball organized by the city hall to celebrate the anniversary of the Liberator’s arrival after his victory in Boyacá…. They nevertheless united at the ball all wearing the same (p.58) disguise. The occasion may have been tempting, since the Liberator walked through the different salons by himself and among the people in masks. It was tempting, indeed, but the good star of Colombia saved H.E. [His Excellency], who retired to the palace before the plotters planned to arrive. What would have come of the reunion, what of the city, of the entire Republic if to the grievousness of the crime [against Bolívar] we would have had to add such serious circumstances [for the nation]?

As the conspiracy plots increased, so too did the banquets for Bolívar. It could not be otherwise, since just as during the war, the postwar message to the population had to be loud and clear; so too the republic should display leisure and pleasure, thus showing that everything was under control. However, contradictions came to the surface in the Gaceta de Colombia on December 31, 1829. On the same page that describes six days of festivities hosted by Colonel José Félix Blanco before a portrait of the Liberator in the city of Girón, Pamplona province, one can read that the Antioquia province did not recognize the supreme authority of the Liberator.

Public displays of support for Bolívar’s rule were quite common during such a critical period, and these necessarily included a dance as a corollary. When he started his dictatorship on June 28, 1828, it became imperative to support the measure with convincing demonstrations of loyalty. That is why in Petare, a village close to Caracas, the town council issued an official pronouncement supporting the Liberator’s decision. In the document the president of the town council addressed the most prominent families and other notables of the area, informing them that Bolívar had set himself up as the supreme chief of Colombia in order to fight the reign of anarchy and to guarantee stability in the republic. The community members agreed, therefore,

that on the night of the 26th there will be a tablado [stage] at the square to show a portrait of the American hero and supreme chief of Colombia. Then there will be a concert with songs, and soon after a public ball and the corresponding illumination for three nights: at the church there will be a solemn thanksgiving mass singing the Te Deum on the 27th, which will be attended by this body [the town council] and other notables; and that the people will be invited to indulge themselves in all kind of legal celebrations that might be suggested by (p.59) their patriotic enthusiasm, as called by the heads of families and other distinguished people for tomorrow night, when we will agree on all the other activities that we consider necessary to honor the republic and its benefactor.

(Bolívar 1828, 257–58)

Ultimately, due to the declaration of supreme power, Bolívar fell into disgrace and had to leave power in May 1830. However, on his way to exile through Colombian territory he continued to receive all kinds of homage and banquets that generally led to dance. In “Partida del Libertador” (1866), Juan B. Ortiz provides an account of an ill and debilitated Bolívar, who, when passing through the city of Honda and despite his precarious health, accepted the homage brought to him by the city’s most illustrious people: “The members of the town council, the public employees, and the most distinguished neighbors had prepared a ball that night, and Bolívar, though exhausted and weak, was very pleased and thankful for such kindness, unexpected for a man in his situation” (98).


The interaction between dance and power was particularly crucial for South America from the time of the independence wars against Spanish rule that took place all around the continent through the second and the third decades of the nineteenth century. After the cessation of conflict, the people from these lands faced the challenge of building republics on the liberated territories. Here we have chosen to study Simón Bolívar, as one of the main protagonists of the period, and his Colombian political project. In spite of his heroic profile, he made time for relaxation, leisure, vanity, gallantry, and love affairs; in other words, he pursued the very human impulse shared by many of his contemporaries to turn to the delight of dancing as a very important activity even during the fiercest of conflicts. Indeed, despite the odds, dancing was not an exceptional activity during the crisis but quite the opposite: it was used as an effective and ideal propaganda tool to attract support and to measure loyalties, to exert power and dominance, to negotiate agreements or to impose a regime. Contemporary accounts bring attention to the ways that popular history intersects with and mutually constitutes the great gests of heroic history. When the lives of ordinary people were in danger as a consequence of war, they found a chance to balance tribulation (p.60) with pleasure. It is in this sense that dancing played an important symbolic role and was used—consciously or unconsciously—by the parties involved in the conflict as a means to serve their political interests.



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